Iraq vote in Egypt defined by sectarianism

Many Iraqis living in Egypt cast ballots for Iraq’s vital parliamentary elections today according to their sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, defying earlier indications that Iraqis were gradually moving away from identity-based politics.

The outcome of today’s elections will likely have far-reaching effects on Iraq’s political future as it comes almost 16 months before US forces complete their scheduled withdrawal from the country. 

Unlike 2005 parliamentary elections, which were characterized by a massive Sunni boycott, Sunni political forces have engaged in coordinated campaigns aimed at mobilizing voters this time around in hopes of evening out the current political system, which has greatly favored Shia and Kurdish constituencies.

With many Iraqis disillusioned with the dominant religious and/or political groups–Sunni and Shia alike–that have controlled Iraq since US troops toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, opinion polls had suggested that Iraqis were distancing themselves from religious parties, which they blame for perpetuating the country’s enormous political, security, economic and social woes.

But several Iraqi expatriate voters that spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm after casting ballots at polling stations in Cairo drew a more complex picture. While most of these did not vote for religious parties per se, the balloting was, nevertheless, largely sectarian-driven, with Sunnis largely voting for Sunni-dominated electoral lists.

“I voted for Al-Iraqiya List because its leaders don’t act on the orders of Tehran,” Ammar al-Azawi, 39, a Iraqi Sunni living in Egypt since 2006 told Al-Masry Al-Youm after casting his ballot at a Nasr City polling station. “Iraq has become a quagmire. What we need is a benevolent dictator,” Azawi added.

Other Iraqi voters expressed similar sentiments.

Qusai Abdel Latif, 42, an Iraqi Sunni expatriate currently residing in Egypt, also said he voted for Al-Iraqiya List.

“Leaders of Al-Iraqiya promised to rid us of the mullahs,” said Abdel Latif, in reference to the Shia clerics that have controlled the Iraqi political theater since 2003.

The Al-Iraqiya List was formed last January by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Vice President Tariq el-Hashimi, and Saleh el-Mutlaq, head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, a coalition of Sunni civil servants and army officers.

Although Allawi is a Shia, he advocates a secular discourse with an emphasis on combating Iran’s overwhelming political influence in Iraq.

A former leading member of the dissolved Baath party, Allawi has stood firm against the de-Baathification policy, which was widely seen as an attempt to marginalize the once dominant Sunni minority that had ruled Iraq since the establishment of the modern state in 1921.

He is also known for having strong ties with Sunni ex-army officers and is widely hailed for having established a degree of security during his short term as Iraqi interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005.

During Iraq’s January 2009 municipal elections, Allawi’s group performed relatively better in Sunni areas. His chances this time around will depend on the performance of his Sunni allies, particularly el-Hashimi and el-Mutlaq, both of whom scored landslide victories in Sunni provinces in 2009 local elections.

Hashimi’s credentials also resonate with many Iraqis in Egypt.

According to Nizar Lafta Mansour, 21, Hashimi gave his family $700 during a visit to Cairo last month. “Hashimi was concerned about the well-being of the Iraqi community in Egypt, so he donated money for Iraqi schoolchildren,” Mansour, a Sunni, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Strongly dismissing claims of vote buying by el-Hashimi’s side, Moustafa Farouk, a 45-year-old Iraqi Sunni living in Egypt, nevertheless confirmed he had received $200 from one of the vice president’s assistants last month.

Of the nearly 60 Iraqis to cast ballots on Sunday in Nasr City, only one voter identified himself as a Shia. Declining to provide his name, he said he had voted for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law List. 

Al-Masry Al-Youm’s reporter in 6th of October City, which is home to a large Iraqi community, also verified that the majority of voters had cast ballots in favor of the Iraqiya List.

It is widely believed that Sunnis account for the overwhelming majority of Iraqis to have fled their country to Egypt since 2003.

According to Egyptian authorities, some 40,000 Iraqis currently live in Egypt. Iraqi and UN estimates, however, put the number at 25,000.

There were virtually no reports of vote rigging or electoral fraud by independent Iraqi monitors who supervised the three-day election at 37 polling stations in five provinces of Egypt. 

Officials at the Independent High Electoral Comission (IHEC)’s office in Egypt declared that the balloting process had gone smoothly.

“Only one complaint was raised regarding electoral procedures, which we are currently investigating,” said Fares el-Attiya, head of the IHEC’s Egypt bureau.

In the absence of reliable lists of registered voters in Egypt, the IHEC depends on a rigorous system of cross-referencing between would-be voters’ identification documents and original records kept inside Iraq.

Al-Masry Al-Youm’s reporter, however, observed one incident in which a voter holding only a Spanish passport–in which Iraq was specified as his place of birth–had managed to cast a ballot in the Nasr City polling station despite "strict" regulations stipulating that every voter provide at least two valid Iraqi identification documents.

Officials at the IHEC estimate that about 4000 Iraqis in Egypt participated in the voting process. For those who voted outside Iraq, election results will be announced and included in the overall results before being double checked in Baghdad to ensure there was no double voting.

Balloting for Iraqis living abroad was held in 16 countries, including Syria, Jordan, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, the US, Canada, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Britain, Denmark, Holland and the United Arab Emirates. 

Laila El Refai contributed to this report.

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